Dorian Gray centers on a man who shouldn’t be the lead of a film. His name is also Dorian, and he is played by Ben Barnes. Here is an actor that could not carry this film, and because all of the supporting actors managed to outshine him, we are left disappointed. The supporting cast includes Colin Firth, Rebecca Hall and Ben Chaplin, among others, and a film about any of their lives, supernatural or not, probably would have been better.
But that’s not what we get, and considering this is based on Oscar Wilde’s novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, I guess it makes sense that my proposal for a better film wouldn’t be used. Dorian is a character who has a painting done of himself, sees the painting, wishes that he always looked as young and healthy as he does in the painting, and then says he’d give his soul for the opportunity to have this happen. In this universe, making a vague claim like that allows one to become immortal.
Dorian is a man who has recently come to London, and he quickly befriends both the artist, Basil (Chaplin) and Lord Henry (Firth), who are both gracious yet very different people. Basil is a more conservative character, unwilling to take risks and loving a traditional lifestyle. Henry wishes to satisfy all his desires, at one point claiming that the only way to get rid of an impulse is to act upon it. Dorian is introduced to cigarettes and alcohol by Henry, and eventually finds himself quite enamored with these potentially damaging substances.
Of course, they don’t do anything bad to him, thanks to the magical painting. Unaware of this at first, Dorian cuts himself one day, and it’s said that the cut might scar. However, the next day, he is completely healed. He notices this while looking at the painting, which has acquired a scar on its hand and seems to be crying. The painting changed and took the damage that Dorian did to his body. It’s at this point when he realizes that he had might as well enjoy life because he has no reason not to follow Henry’s desire and do whatever makes him feel good about himself.
That’s what happens for the majority of the film: Dorian abuses his body, the painting suffers. Dorian spends most of his time getting drunk, high, and having promiscuous sex with as many people as he can. In one scene, he has sex with a young woman, and when the mother comes in looking for her, he has sex with her too — while the daughter is under the bed. He also kills one person, although by my count, that was the only law he broke. It’s more about what’s right or wrong in a moral sense, and the painting is allowed to decide.
I wish I could just spoil how the film ends so that you wouldn’t have to sit through it in order to find out how it ends. I suppose you could also read the novel, although there are enough changes to set the two works apart. But it concludes exactly how you’d expect, all the while watching a bland Ben Barnes go through the motions of getting tired of life. Oh, I guess I just did ruin part of the ending. What a faux pas on my part.
I’m not completely spoiling what happens at the end, but that takes you up through a good portion of the plot. Don’t worry, as you’ll see this coming from a mile away if you choose to watch Dorian Gray. However, I am glad that the film told me when Dorian was no longer enjoying his lifestyle, as Ben Barnes certainly didn’t tell me. He keeps the same expression throughout, never showing any real emotion and never allowing me to realize what his character was feeling. Even during the murder scene, I couldn’t tell if he was mad at the person he was killing, or if he was happy, mad with power, or anything else. His face is like a blank slate in this film, which sounds funnier than it should be since the painting continues to change as we progress through his story.
What’s supposed to be a critique on the way people live their lives ends up being muddled to the point where, if I didn’t know what the novel was about, I might not have gotten what the film was trying to achieve. Oh, you can tell that we’re supposed to think Dorian is living his life improperly, but feeling anything because of it doesn’t happen. It all comes back to how Dorian is portrayed in both the acting and the dialogue. Neither is sharp or even all that adequate, and because of this, we feel nothing throughout — just like the character.
Dorian Gray is stylishly directed and has some flashy scenes, but they serve little purpose when there’s nothing to care about. It gets slightly more lively when Henry’s daughter, Emily (Rebecca Hall) gets involved, but it’s too little, too late. At that point, we’ve endured too much to be convinced that we had fun, and without anything to care about previously, I had all but had it. Dorian may stay eternally young while all the other characters get gray in their hair (and the males all get longer facial hair too), but I felt I was aging years as the film was going on.
I didn’t enjoy Dorian Gray, and I didn’t think it did a good job of translating Oscar Wilde’s novel to the big screen. It falls mostly on the acting of Ben Barnes in the lead role, who is outshined by the supporting cast and doesn’t bring any emotion to his role. Maybe that’s the point later on, but early in the film, he’s supposed to be enjoying himself. Instead, he — and by extension, I — was stone-faced throughout the film, leading to a boring experience.